The famous saying derived from Greek philosopher Socrates reads: “The only thing that I know is that I know nothing.” There’s a certain apropos to that statement when it comes to the 2018 NFL season so far. While we do know that two teams stand out above the rest, in the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, the rest of the NFL is basically a gigantic 30-team mosh pit, and a loss by either one of them in the coming weeks could make the NFL power rankings even messier. So how will some of those teams fare? Let’s examine as we take a look at the top NFL Picks for Week 6.
Tampa Bay at Atlanta
If you’re an old-school NFL fan who enjoys defense, do yourself a favor and stay the heck away from this game. The idea of “stopping the opposing offense” in this game will be about as far-fetched as a politician who means what they say.
Simply stated, these might very well be the two worst defenses in the NFL. Tampa Bay and Atlanta are both among the bottom five teams in the NFL in yards allowed per game, and they are literally the two worst teams in terms of points allowed per game. Atlanta is 31st in the NFL, surrendering 32.6 points per game, while Tampa Bay is dead last, giving up 34.8 points per game.
We’ll learn a lot about the latter – and the increasingly tenuous job security of head coach Dirk Koetter – when we see how ready Tampa Bay is on Sunday.
Before their bye week last Sunday, Matt Nagy, Mitchell Trubisky, and the Chicago Bears put up one of the most humiliating beat-downs on the Buccaneers that we’ve seen of any team in recent memory. After being carpet-bombed for most of that afternoon, the Buccaneers have now given up 35 “explosive plays” – run plays of 12 or more yards and pass plays of 16 or more yards – this year, which is tied for the fifth-most in the league. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith runs the most basic, vanilla Cover 2 defensive scheme in the NFL, leading to teams just picking it apart like monkey bread.
It’s almost hard to fathom the fact that this team started the season with two wins in a row, beating the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. But, we can always look back at the fact that Tampa’s defense didn’t do much to stop either team; it was just Tampa’s offense that outscored them. But once Ryan Fitzpatrick’s “Fitzmagic” turned right back into a magic show gone wrong, things quickly got ugly. Now having turned the quarterback position back over to Jameis Winston, it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the offense responds, especially after they were absolutely gushing about the way things were going under Fitzpatrick.
While every team has to deal with it at some level, almost no team in the NFL has had one side of the football so crippled like the Falcons have on defense. That’s the biggest reason for their free fall in the defensive power rankings, though it’s not like anyone is going to feel sorry for them about it.
The Falcons might be 1-4, but they know that they’re a better football team than their record indicates. You should fully expect a hungry – if not desperate – Falcons team to come out on Sunday, and show some heart in a potentially season-defining game against a floundering NFC South opponent. The fact that this game is in Atlanta will only help the Falcons offense to run up and down the Tampa Bay defense. The lines show that money is flowing in Tampa’s direction, likely because of the generous +160 odds. Don’t fall for that trap.
Pick: Atlanta (-3.5)
Baltimore at Tennessee
Neither the Baltimore Ravens nor the Tennessee Titans are “must-see TV” for anyone except their fans. They’re not particularly strong in any area of their team, they both lack a household name or true marquee player, and they’re easily overlooked in the conversation of “top teams in the AFC.”
Both the Titans and the Ravens not only have a winning record through five games this season but the way both teams look, they could very well be contending for either a postseason berth at season’s end, if not their respective division championships.
After missing out on the postseason for the past three years, the proverbial ice began thinning faster than ever underneath Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, culminating in the Ravens selecting his heir apparent in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
But whether it was the said pick lighting a fire underneath him this offseason, or merely the fact that this summer was the first time he entered training camp with a clean bill of health, Joe Flacco looks more like the guy who led the Ravens on a deep postseason run in January of 2013, as opposed to the guy whom most people argued as being the most overpaid – and most overrated – player in the NFL. It’s obviously a very early sample size at the moment, but after five games, Flacco is on pace to throw for just under 5,000 yards this season, as his 310 passing yards per game is among the top 10 in the NFL at the moment.
Baltimore, of course, is about much more than Flacco. It’s always been known as a defensively-oriented team, and this year is no different. They allow the third-fewest yards per game in the league, along with the fewest points per game of any team (15.4).
How will that juxtapose with a Tennessee Titans’ offense that’s suffered through fits and starts for most this season? Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who’s enduring another injury-marred season, has a total of 15 passing touchdowns since the start of last season; by comparison, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes has 14 touchdown passes over the past five games.
Neither one of Tennessee’s 1-2 punch at running back in Derrick Henry or Dion Lewis has run for more than 75 yards in a game. The young wide receivers, starting with Corey Davis, are showing their youth, and the offensive line has also been banged up.
If this game took place in Baltimore, we’d almost recommend you to go out and take a second mortgage on your home and use all that money you borrowed to make a big wager on the Ravens. But the Ravens have a very Jekyll-and-Hyde team when playing at home versus on the road, proven by their 7-12 record on the road since the start of the 2016 season (also, the Titans are 4-0 against the spread over their last four games).
The Titans are entirely comfortable with gutting out ugly football games, which this figures to be. Since we’re not 100% sold that either team wins this game, just take the points.
Pick: Tennessee (+3)
Jacksonville at Dallas
Despite the renaissance of young quarterbacks, the NFL is enjoying right now, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys appear to be very much in the Dark Ages when it comes to the man under center.
Just under two years ago, the Cowboys thought so highly of quarterback Dak Prescott that they practically pushed Tony Romo – one of the most popular players in franchise history – into retirement as quickly as possible. While the transition to Prescott made plenty of sense at the time, it now seems like they might’ve acted way too prematurely.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s offensively-challenged schemes and play-calling do leave much to be desired, but the struggles of Prescott have to be disconcerting for that 7% of Dallas Cowboys fans who have more than a cursory (read: “bandwagon”) interest in their team. There are times when it looks like Prescott couldn’t find the right receiver to throw the ball to unless the receiver and a neon “OPEN” sign hanging from his neck.
If there’s one redeeming factor about Prescott, it’s that he doesn’t throw a ton of interceptions or commit a lot of turnovers. The same, of course, can’t be said of Jacksonville’s guy, Blake Bortles. Rather, Bortles is effectively an NFL quarterback version of playing Russian Roulette: at some point, you’ll find the bullet in the chamber.
Sometimes, you get the Bortles who threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the New England Patriots. But every so often, you’ll get the Bortles who committed five turnovers himself, and almost singlehandedly threw his team out of the game, like he did last week against Kansas City.
Point being, expect both teams to come out and clamp down on the opposing running game and force the opponent to beat them via their struggling passing games. That works well in Dallas’ favor, considering their defense – especially the front seven of that group – has quietly become the strength of that team. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is among the very best pass rushers in the NFL, and linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have solidified the linebacker position (they’re both in the top 15 in the NFL in tackles to date).
Conversely, that doesn’t bode well at all for Jacksonville, who’s now without the services of both Leonard Fournette and Corey Grant. While TJ Yeldon has played very well for them, he’s basically all they have at the position, which is why they had to go out and sign running back Jamaal Charles off the street.
The equalizer in this game, though, is still Jacksonville’s defense. Because Bortles threw away the game last week, we didn’t get to fully see what the Jaguars defense could do when playing on a level field against the high-powered Chiefs offense. Jacksonville has the resources to entirely sell out to stop the run, without having to worry about getting torched deep.
Because there’s less tumult in Jacksonville and the fact that Dallas is 2-3 over their last five games at home against the spread, we’ll give the nod to Jacksonville here. There’s a good reason for the money that must have come through the sports books in Jacksonville’s favor, causing the line to jump from the Jaguars being 1.5-point favorites to 3-point favorites between Monday and Tuesday mornings.
Pick: Jacksonville (-3)
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
To borrow from venerated World Wrestling Entertainment announcer Jim Ross: whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals face each other, it’s going to be a slobberknocker.
Of course, such a statement might seem silly when you look at the defensive standing of these two teams. It’s no secret to most NFL fans that Pittsburgh’s defense shouldn’t be mentioned anywhere near the units we saw in the last couple of decades, let alone the great Steel Curtain of the 1970’s. It’s honestly surprising that Steelers fans can sleep at night, knowing their team is 29th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, and 25th in the NFL in points allowed per game.
But Cincinnati’s unit isn’t all that much better. They’re 21st in the NFL in points and passing yards allowed per game, and 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game. Cincinnati allowed both quarterbacks they faced to start this season to throw for more than 300 yards against them, and in their win against Atlanta two weeks ago, Matt Ryan threw for 419 yards.
So, it begs the question: what will Ben Roethlisberger do to them? Roethlisberger is currently 3rd in the NFL in passing yards himself, and though he only threw for 250 yards in the lopsided win against Atlanta last week, he started the season with three straight games with more than 330 yards passing, and he’s thrown 10 touchdown passes over the last four weeks. Even with all the talk about his “spotty” connection with superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown this year, the latter still has five touchdown catches, which is tied for the 2nd-most in the NFL.
This is a big litmus test game for Cincinnati; a win against Pittsburgh, at home, would go a long way towards proving they’re a legitimate contender to wrestle back supremacy of the AFC North. While Cincinnati is 4-1, only one of those four wins came against a team with a winning record right now – that was against Miami last week, where they came roaring back from a 17-0 deficit.
Perhaps a better way to put it is that this is a “gear-shifting” game: the winner of this game will speed into a prime position in the division race. A win by the Bengals and a loss by Baltimore would give Cincinnati a two-game lead in the AFC North race. Conversely, if Pittsburgh wins – and Baltimore loses – they’re only a half game back of the Bengals in the division.
The betting action favors the Steelers, with the line going from the Bengals being favored by three, down to 2.5 points. After a bumpy start to the season, is this the time the Steelers start to ride the ship? If they win, the tide could rise even higher with the impending return of Le’Veon Bell.
We’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt this week.
Pick: Pittsburgh (+2.5)
Kansas City at New England
There are no two ways about it: Week 6 offers us a true “Ali vs. Frazier” matchup for the 2018 season. Whether you want to look at it as “The Champ (New England) vs. The #1 Contender (Kansas City)” or “The GOAT (Tom Brady) vs. The Heir Apparent (Patrick Mahomes),” this game is certainly not without the NFL’s version of on-field sex appeal.
As the Chiefs remain the last AFC team without a loss this season, the fact that Kansas City was able to bypass their toughest test of the season to date last Sunday got swept under the rug. Jacksonville’s defense was one of the toughest and most talented in the league, but because quarterback Blake Bortles decided to throw away the Jaguars’ chances of remaining competitive, we didn’t get a chance to see what would happen to Kansas City if they had to go four quarters against a team that boasts nearly as much talent as theirs.
New England certainly doesn’t have the talent of Jacksonville on defense; it might be the exact opposite, actually. If there’s cause for concern among Patriots fans, it’s the fact that New England’s lumbering (and slow) front seven simply isn’t a match for the way Kansas City is able to spread things out laterally, and/or smash them with running back Kareem Hunt (who has back-to-back games with at least 22 touches and 90 combined yards).
Instead, as we all know, it’s all about New England’s offense. There’s Brady and Rob Gronkowski and now wide receiver Julian Edelman; that we already know. But what many people fail to realize is how much the Patriots are relying on their running game of late, to help take the burden off Brady. New England rookie running back Sony Michel is averaging 19 carries per game over the last three games and is coming off back-to-back games with 98 or more yards rushing.
New England will almost certainly try to do what opposing teams used to try to do against them: keep the opposing offense off the field, and limit opportunities for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense to score. If there’s ever an offense that’s crafty enough to finally snap Kansas City’s “bend but don’t break defense” (they’re allowing 343 yards passing per game – 2nd worst in the NFL), it’s the Patriots.
The fact that this game is in New England adds another layer of intrigue. It’s been more than a calendar year since the Patriots have lost at home, but Kansas City did come into Foxborough and deliver a whoopin’ on New England in the 2017 season opener. But in the rare situation where New England is seemingly the underdog (even if the point spread favors them), expect the crowd to be in a complete frenzy.
This game is a major measuring stick for Mahomes. If he can go into New England and beat the Patriots, he’s worth every bit of the anointing oil being cast upon him.
But to use another wrestling phrase, as the great Ric Flair often said: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
Pick: New England (-3.5)